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NBA Swing: Is the Eastern Conference Wide Open?

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The first two weeks of the 2021-22 NBA season have brought many surprises from players in MVP contention to contenders looking like some of the worst teams in the league. One of the biggest surprises of the 2021-22 season so far has been the Eastern Conference. The Eastern Conference does not look the same as it did last season. If the playoffs were to start today, two of the top three teams from the East last year would be a part of the play-in tournament. Philadelphia has struggled without Ben Simmons, Milwaukee just came out of a slump, and Kyrie’s absence has had its impact on the Brooklyn Nets. With the top dogs of the East struggling right now, there are three teams at the top that haven’t been there for years. 

As of this writing (Wednesday, November 3), The Miami Heat are the first seed, with a 6-1 record. Following tonight’s win over the Bulls, the Philadelphia 76ers and Chicago Bulls are second and third, tied with a 6-2 record. Toronto is fourth with a 6-3 record. The Charlotte Hornets, Brooklyn Nets, New York Knicks, and Washington Wizards all have a 5-3 record, filling the 5-8 spots. 

In Miami, the Heat have come out of the gate shocking many. After the up and down season last year and getting swept in the first round of the NBA playoffs, many predicted the Heat would most likely be in the top half of the East with the addition of Kyle Lowry. The team has looked like a well-oiled machine so far. Lowry has meshed well into the team while Tyler Herro has looked like a candidate for both most improved player and sixth man of the year. Jimmy Butler looks both rejuvenated and like an MVP candidate, with splits of 25.0 PPG, 6.9 RPG, and 5.6 APG. Bam Adebayo looks refreshed compared to last season, currently averaging a double-double of 20.8 PPG and 18.8 RPG. So far, Miami has played several contenders, having double-digit wins over Milwaukee, Brooklyn, and Dallas. If Miami is to continue playing the way they are, there is no doubt they will be a top-three seed and a serious contender come playoff time. 

While Miami has been in the playoffs for the last several years, the Chicago Bulls are looking to make a splash during the season and in the playoffs for the first time since the 2016 NBA playoffs (when Jimmy Butler was still in Chicago). Last season, Chicago was close to making the playoffs and play-in tournament, but injuries along with health and safety protocols ended the Bulls season in May. With offseason additions such as Lonzo Ball, DeMar DeRozan, and Alex Caruso, the Bulls are looking like a completely different team compared to last season. Compared to the Heat, the Bulls have had a much easier schedule thus far, with the Jazz and Knicks being the biggest challenges so far. Monday night, Chicago came back from nearly 20 down in the third to beat the Celtics by 14 points. Last season, Chicago was one of the worst teams in the fourth, losing most games in that quarter alone. As of right now, Zach Lavine and DeMar DeRozan are both averaging over 25 PPG, while Nikola Vucevic is averaging 15.1 PPG and 10.9 RPG. While Chicago did, unfortunately, lose sophomore forward Patrick Williams to a season-ending injury, the team still has the potential to be in the top half of the East come April. 

The Heat and Bulls look like they could sit atop the East, come the end of the season, the Knicks are a tricky team. Currently, at 5-3, the Knicks have had several impressive wins so far. New York opened the season with a double OT win over the Boston Celtics. Since then, New York has had impressive wins over Philadelphia, Chicago, and Orlando. The team has been quite impressive with the roster they have. Julius Randle has gotten past his playoff funk, average 21.0 PPG, while RJ Barrett, Evan Fournier, and Kemba Walker are all averaging over 15.0 PPG. On the Bench, Derrick Rose will be in contention for sixth man of the year. With an easy schedule in the early weeks of the season, it is likely the Knicks will move up and down the standings as the season moves forward. 

One final surprise in the Eastern Conference has been the Charlotte Hornets. Last season, Charlotte was in NBA playoff contention for a large amount of the season before LaMelo Ball’s wrist injury caused him to miss the end of the season. This season, LaMelo is moving closer to being a true superstar in the league. In addition to Ball, Miles Bridges came out of the gate averaging over 23.0 PPG. So far, Charlotte has had impressive wins over Brooklyn and Portland. Many of the teams’ other games thus far have been close, with Charlotte proving they have what it takes to close out a game. With teams like Washington and Toronto expected to drop in the standings over the course of the season, the Hornets should be locked into a playoff spot come April. 

While those NBA teams all look capable of making a push into the playoffs, the top three seeds from last year cannot be ignored. As previously mentioned, Milwaukee just came out of a losing slump, looking to reach the top of the East soon. Currently, the 10th seed, the Bucks have had impressive wins over Brooklyn and Detroit, while suffering hard losses against Miami, San Antonio, and Utah. Looking at the rest of the month, Milwaukee is facing a healthy mix of playoff and lower-tier teams. The team is expected to get several players back over the course of the season, something that will most likely help the team as the season carries on. For Brooklyn and Philadelphia, missing players have a tremendous impact on their teams. With Kyrie Irving expected to miss the entire season, Brooklyn may continue to be in a slump, but turn it on come playoff time. Brooklyn has a relatively easy month of November, facing only a few top-tier teams in Chicago, Phoenix, New York, and Golden State. November may be a pivotal month for the Nets come April. Unlike Brooklyn, Philly may have a chance of seeing Ben Simmons return to the court. Currently sitting at 2nd in the East, Philly is going to have a rough month, facing the Bucks, Bulls, Jazz, Nuggets, and Warriors all in the month of November. This early season month may have a huge impact on the rest of the Sixer’s season. 

Right now, it is hard to argue that the NBA Eastern Conference is not wide open. With the season being so young, it is completely possible that another team could move up and shock the East. While the West might look very similar in April to how it does now, there is no telling how the East will look with so much going on in the conference right now.

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